Curt Whall

Faced with the question of "Why should Cairns be Groomed?" many think it's mostly to make your dog look neat and is probably really necessary only for Show Dogs. The result is that many pet Cairns are not often groomed. Actually there is a lot more to grooming.

What is grooming then? It consists of all those things that we do to promote HEALTH, HYGIENE, and APPEARANCE. Grooming for health entails doing those things necessary to ensure your dog's continued good health and to avoid medical problems. Grooming for hygiene involves steps to prevent your dog from becoming smelly, dirty, and uncomfortable and staining your carpets and furniture. Grooming for appearance is done to give your dog that "Cairnish" looks; i.e. to make your pet look like the standard for the breed rather than an undifferentiated pile of hair of uncertain ancestry. This is part of preserving type.

There is a common perception that grooming requires a great deal of time, effort, and skill. This is true for Show Grooming where the ideal is to produce a perfectly sculptured, faultless example of the breed. The amount of time, effort, and skill required to meet the basic goals of health, hygiene, and appearance, however, are far more modest.

This article will examine the things that proper grooming does to meet these goals. You will notice that many of the things done actually fulfill more than one goal. While the following is oriented toward the Cairn, almost all of it applies equally well to West Highland White Terriers and Scottish Terriers.

Nail Clipping

Unclipped toenails grow longer and longer unless your dog wears them down with constant activity on rough terrain. Since many Cairns are housedogs there is no natural wearing going on so the nails will continue to grow. As this happens, they will tend to curve down toward the ground. This forces the front of the foot up and the back down; forcing the dog to walk more and more on its "heels". This causes the Achilles tendons to stretch and strains the muscles of the legs causing painful cramping in the legs and eventual crippling. Just imagine the pain if you had to walk around with blocks of wood strapped to the balls of your feet! If this continues for the long term the dog will display a shuffling walk that may be permanent. In cases of severe neglect, the nails can curve all the way around until they dig into the pads. In this case the dog will not be able to walk at all. Unclipped nails also have an effect upon appearance. The Cairn's jaunty, light-footed walk is a result of its walking well up on its feet, "on its toes" so to speak. The unclipped Cairn, on the other hand is a plodder. How can you tell if your Cairn's nails are short enough? Listen as it walks across a hard floor. If you hear click, click, click, the nails are too long. Most Cairns hate to have their nails clipped. If you don't want to go through this yourself have your Vet or Professional Groomer do it. Let the dog hate them instead!

Teeth Cleaning

Just like people, Cairns tend to build up tartar and plaque on their teeth unless regularly cleaned. This will tend to cause gum disease (periodontal disease) and again, just as in people, gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss in dogs. Dirty teeth also look bad and have an impact upon hygiene. Dirty teeth and gum disease can give your Cairn a breath bad enough to gag a maggot! The most serious results can come from severe periodontal disease causing abscesses and in the most severe cases systemic diseases such as blood poisoning (septicemia) which can be life threatening. While some dogs, like some people, seem to be naturally immune to plaque and tartar buildup, most are prone to some effect. Recent research indicates that 85% of all dogs and cats over four years of age have periodontal disease. Some compulsive chewers of hard rubber and nylon toys tend to keep their teeth well cleaned. Most, however, should have their teeth cleaned when necessary. How do you know if your Cairn needs its teeth cleaned? Look for swelling, redness, yellowing teeth, deposits, and bad breath. Since few Cairns will sit still for a teeth cleaning, very few owners do this themselves. While there are some Professional Groomers who will attempt this, most cleaning is done under sedation or anesthesia by Vets. When your Cairn goes to the Vets for a checkup, make sure that the Vet checks the teeth; many do not. If they need to be cleaned, get it done. This is important! You can help the process of this examination. Most Cairns don't like having people, especially strangers, prying their mouths open and will kick up a fuss when they try. Perhaps this is why many vets neglect this important health check. Accustom your Cairn to regular mouth inspections. Invite your friends and relatives to have a look! You may be considered a little weird but it's worth it. Show Dogs are trained to allow the Judge to examine their bites and are blasé about it. We achieve this by accustoming them to mouth examinations from puppy-hood. They all learn the "Show Teeth" command very early.

Expressing the Anal Glands

All dogs have glands on either side of the anus that normally produces scent. Sometimes these glands become impacted and swell up. When this happens, your Cairn will act uncomfortable and probably will do a lot of scooting on its bottom on your carpets. The dog will also probably stink since the rotten exudate dammed up in the glands can be pretty rank. When this happens the anal area will probably be reddened and swollen. If you see this condition either your Vet or Groomer can take care of it or you can do it yourself. It's a pretty simple operation.

Cover the anus with several thicknesses of toilet paper and squeeze the base of the anus between your thumb and forefinger. You will feel a pop and the TP will have collected a dark secretion. Work the base of the anus with additional squeezes to empty any pockets that you missed the first time. Clean up the anal area with soap and water. Few dogs resent this procedure. After it's done most will give you a look of real gratitude! Warning!! Make sure that the anus is well covered by the TP before you squeeze! If unconfined, this stuff can fly right across the room!

Eliminating or Minimizing Skin Disease

Cairns are more prone to skin problems than are many other breeds. Heightened sensitivity to flea bites, dry skin, bacteria, and clogged pores have all been identified as precipitating factors. While some dogs seem to be blessed with immunity to this, many will show some sign of skin disease, especially in the Summer and more often in the older Cairn.

How do you detect skin diseases? Your dog will do a lot of scratching and/or pulling out of hair on its back and legs. The most common spot for this is on the back and buttocks near the base of the tail. As the condition progresses you will notice reddened areas of skin in the now bare or thinly haired parts. In more severe cases the skin will be broken and will bleed or weep.

What can you do about it? If you take your dog to the Vets, they will prescribe flea dips, flea shampoos, steroid creams and antibiotics. In more severe cases they will give cortisone injections. While all these are effective to a degree and easy to do, they extract their prices on your dog's health, hygiene, and appearance and also on your pocketbook. There is a better way to avoid or minimize skin disease through grooming! Through these techniques, visits to the Vets can be reduced and in many cases eliminated entirely.

Why don't Vets tell you about this? There are probably several reasons. First, many Vets don't know about it. Their training focuses on treating disease through chemical, pharmaceutical, and surgical methods. While they all have good understandings of the anatomy and physiology of these conditions, grooming isn't a hot topic in Veterinary School. Second, grooming takes time and effort and Vets know that most people prefer quick and easy fixes.

In order to understand how grooming promotes healthy skin it is necessary first to understand the growth progression of the Cairn's coat. Unlike most other breeds, the Cairn doesn't shed. Hair growth goes through a progression of healthy new coat, "dying" coat, and onto "dead" or "blown" coat. Hair growth stops when the underlying hair follicle becomes "exhausted". The dead hair remains loosely rooted in the follicle until it is mechanically removed. At this point the follicle goes into a "resting" stage for a period of time before producing a new, healthy hair. The following drawing illustrates these stages.

Stage 1 shows the resting hair follicle. The skin over it is unbroken. Stage 2 shows the growth of a new, healthy hair. This hair is thick, hard, shiny, well pigmented, and solidly rooted. This coat readily sheds dirt and water. As the hair continues to grow the follicle becomes less vigorous leading to stage 3. In stage 3 the base of the hair is thinner, softer, dryer, less well pigmented, and is now weakly rooted. The tip of the hair though retains its thickness, which can fool you. On the outside the dog's coat appears to be in good condition even though in reality it is half-dead. We call this stage a "dying coat" The weak rooting provides a channel for bacteria to enter the skin and cause skin disease. In stage 4 the hair is eroded to the point that its entire length is crinkled and has lost pigment. We describe a coat like this as "completely dead" or "completely blown". This coat becomes matted and tangled and holds onto dirt, water, dead skin flakes, water, twigs, and practically everything else. In stage 5 the hair has been mechanically removed but still remains tangled in the coat. The follicle, now though, is able to close up and return to the resting stage.
What are the implications of all of this? First, the dog with a healthy stage 2 coat is going to remain cleaner and better smelling than one with a dead coat. It is also resistant to bacterial infection and so less likely to suffer from skin disease. Its shiny, well-pigmented coat is far more attractive. This coat then meets all of our three goals of health, hygiene, and appearance. The opposite is true of the blown stage 4 coat. Note that simply clipping the stage 3 and 4 coat doesn't buy you much. You still have a dead coat. Some people think that clipping the coat lightens its color. We now know better than that. All that was done was that the healthier tips were clipped away revealing more of the dead, unpigmented roots underneath.

Not shown in the illustration is the second half of the Cairn's coat. We speak of Cairns as being a "double-coated" breed. In addition to the outer, or guard, hairs shown above, Cairns have a soft, downy "undercoat" consisting of fine, soft, dull hairs that are much shorter than the guard hairs. There are approximately 3-5 undercoat hairs clustered around each Guard hair. Nature designed the Cairn to have its hard outer coat for protection from weather, the terrain, and its prey and to have its downy undercoat for warmth. The undercoat doesn't cause the same types of problems that a dying outer coat does. Over time the undercoat just becomes thicker and looser and adds to the hygiene problem.

What should you do to maintain your Cairn's healthy coat? For show dogs whose coat is to be maintained in the very best condition we perform a process called "Rolling the Coat". What we do here is go over the entire dog and actually pull out the dead and dying hair. This can be done using either the fingers or a tool called a "stripping knife". These come in left and right-handed models and look like little saws with straight handles. The technique is similar using either method. First secure your dog so that it can't run away or do back flips on you. Leashing them to an overhead ring works well. The dog should not be strung so tightly that it is strangling but it shouldn't be able to wander around either. Next, thoroughly brush and comb the coat to get rid of all the knots and tangles. Then, grip a group of hairs either between the fingers or between a thumb and the teeth of the stripping knife. Pull the hair in the direction in which it naturally lies using enough tension so that the weakly rooted dead hair comes out and the strongly rooted healthy hair stays behind. Be careful to always pull in the direction of the lie of the hair, not against it and always pull smoothly, never jerk the hair. These wouldn't be any more efficient and would just hurt the dog. If you find your fingers or your knife slipping, use bookkeepers rubber fingers or chalk to improve your grip.

By the way, does this hurt the dog? The answer to this is "it depends". Pulling the dead hair off the back and neck of Cairns doesn't hurt them. Your dogs may try to convince you that you are torturing them, but this is just acting. You handle this by adopting an attitude that says, "I know what I'm doing. We ARE going to do this, so get used to it". After a while, it doesn't bother them much. When Cairns get older, however, their skin tends to become more sensitive so you have to be a little gentler to get the job done without discomfort. Just pull fewer hairs at a time and do it more slowly. Gently teasing the hair out also helps. Be aware that some parts of the body are more sensitive than others. Cairns are more sensitive the lower that you go on the sides and very sensitive on the belly. Many show Groomers clip the belly hairs rather than pulling them. Just go more slowly and carefully on the sides than you do on the top. This also applies to the head, legs, and the rear around the anus, vagina, and scrotum. Also pulling live, healthy hair is much harder to do than dead hair and greatly increases the dog's discomfort.

To maintain your dog's coat in the very best condition it has to be rolled every 7-10 days. This is a lot of work; more than most people would want or need to do to maintain health, hygiene, and appearance. In fact we only work this hard on the dogs that are actively competing in the show ring. The others get much less on an as-needed basis. Once a month is probably sufficient for most Cairns. Can you hire a professional to roll your dog's coat? No. All professional say that they couldn't make any money doing this even if they were able to work that hard all day. Occasionally you can find a breeder or professional handler who will do this but not very often. If you do, prepare to spend a dollar a minute or more.

If the coat is completely blown, you can take it all off. This is called "stripping the coat". Here, all the outer coat is removed at once so only the undercoat is left. This is a frequently used technique on dogs whose appearance is not a prime consideration.

Although rolling the coat is indisputably the best way to achieve health, hygiene and appearance, what can you do if you simply can't bring yourself to pull hair? First, regular brushing is pretty effective. Begin with a coarse brush such as a metal pin brush. This will work through a lot of the tangles. Go over the whole dog. Next, comb the dog with a coarse comb; working gently through the remaining mats and tangles. Third repeat the process using a fine-toothed comb. Upon completion of this you will have straightened out the tangles, stimulated the skin, and pulled a surprising amount of dead hair. Finally, brush the dog with a fine brush. The Slicker brush which contains a large number of fine wire bristles works well here. This will further stimulate the skin and remove dead flakes and other detritus. A bigger reason for this step, though, is that it is very effective in raking out dead undercoat. Profuse dead undercoat traps a lot of dirt. In removing this you will also notice that your Cairn now has a sleeker, healthier appearance. This is because you have removed the long, dull undercoat that had begun to grow through the outer-coat. Next have your dog clipped when the hair gets long and dead. As previously mentioned this is a far cry from the best course to follow, but at least it gets rid of a lot of hair and makes brushing a lot easier. By the way if you send your Cairn to a professional Groomer and get back a dog that looks like a Schnauzer, Westie, or Scottie, go somewhere else. There ARE Groomers who know how a Cairn should look. It's just that they aren't too common.


Bathing your Cairn is something that you should avoid. If you maintain your dog's coat and skin in good condition, it will remain clean and odor-free. Bathing is recommended only when your Cairn rolls in something that can't be brushed out. The reasons for this have to do with the nature of the Cairn's coat and skin and the effect of the chemicals in shampoos upon them. These agents accelerate the natural aging and dying of the coat. They act to dry the skin and damage the hair. This can lead to a vicious cycle. Bathing damages the hair. Damaged hair retains more dirt, oil, and odor. Dirty, smelly dogs need more bathing. And so it goes... If you HAVE to bathe, use a shampoo designed for hard-coated dogs if at all possible. Under NO circumstances should you use a shampoo that contains coat softeners or creme rinses. These only make the problem worse. Note that if your Cairn's coat is naturally soft and/or curly you will probably have to bathe. Fortunately few well-bred Cairns have such problem coats. An effective "quick fix" for a smelly, oily, coat is to mist the coat with either rubbing alcohol or SeaBreeze and then rubbing your dog down with a towel. Nearly instantly, your dog will feel and smell cleaner. Note, however, that this doesn't do any deep cleaning so it is only a temporary measure.

Grooming the Ears

A Cairn's ears are one of its most expressive features. A Cairn whose ears are covered with long, droopy hair loses a lot. Fortunately, grooming the ears for proper appearance is a pretty easy thing to do. The best way is to use your fingertips or a fine stripping knife to pull the long hair off the TOP THIRD ONLY of both ears; both font and back. Hold the base of the ear steady with your other hand as you do this. Cairns don't seem to mind this procedure at all. The hair is pulled very short but not down to the skin. Any rough edges can be then neatend with fine thinning shears or scissors. Thinning shears are better because they don't leave an unnatural, clipped look. Alternatively you can clip the ears with scissors. This is definitely second best, though, because the result is never as smooth and the hair grows out again much faster.

When trimming your Cairn's ears, inspect the ear canal. If you see buildups of dirt or wax, remove it by gently swabbing out the ear with a little mineral oil. Note that unlike the human ear you can't hurt the eardrum by sticking a swab down in it. The Dog's ear canal has a bend in it that prevents you from reaching the drum. You may notice that your Cairn has been shaking its head or rubbing an ear. If so inspect the ear. If it's just dirt or wax buildup you can fix it by cleaning. If the ear is red, swollen, or has blood, pus, or fluid coming out of it, though, that's a job for the Vet.

Grooming the Tail

A Cairn's characteristic look also depends upon the proper appearance of the tail, which should be trimmed to cone-shape. Clipping the tail to this shape is not very effective over time because the characteristic shape requires a volume of hair that can only be maintained by healthy hair. The clipped tail gets thinner and thinner as the hair dies and so does the appearance of the tail. The tail should be pulled to maintain its proper shape. This also maintains the health of the underlying skin; an important factor since the tail is one of the areas on a Cairn prone to skin disease.

Eye Care

An important characteristic of the breed is the expressiveness of its eyes. This is a look of alertness and intelligence that is achieved not only through proper eye size, shape, placement, and color, but also through proper grooming. The hair on the forehead should be profuse but not so long that it droops down and obscures the eyes. Conversely, it should not be so short that the eyes appear to be too prominent and starey. The proper length is that which frames and enhances the expressiveness of the eyes. This is usually a length where the forehead hair is long enough to curve a bit forward but not to droop down. Similarly, the hair on the muzzle and between the eyes should be trimmed so that the eyes aren't obscured. The best way to do all this is to hold your Cairn's chin whiskers firmly between the fingers of one hand and carefully pull overlong hairs with the other. Your Cairn won't like this. Trimming with fine thinning shears works pretty effectively here but doesn't look as good nor does it last as long.

Use this opportunity to check for other conditions that need attention. It isn't rare to find foreign matter In the eyes that cause discomfort and a dull expression. Remove this by bathing or gently swabbing the eye with a saline solution. You can buy this in the eye care section of your drug store or make it at home by dissolving l/8th tsp. salt in 8 oz of warm water). Another fairly common condition found at this time is weeping from the tear ducts. This weeping causes a crusty buildup at the inner margins of the eyes that causes discomfort, hair loss, and skin reactions. This should be gently washed off with saline. While this condition is usually caused by a reaction to foreign matter in the eye or by minor colds, it could be a result of a clogged or deformed tear duct. This is a fairly common problem in the small, short-muzzled breeds. If this condition persists, your Vet should be consulted. The most serious condition to check for at this time is "dry eye" (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca). While pretty rare, it is more common in Cairns than in most other breeds. Here, the eye reduces or stops its production of tears. When this happens, the eye looks dry and dull, and the dog blinks a lot and tends to avoid bright lights. If untreated, the condition causes great discomfort and corneal ulceration and always leads to blindness. Unfortunately, even the best treatments aren't always successful.

Grooming the Feet

Grooming the feet rarely has a noticeable impact upon health or hygiene. This is mostly a case of grooming for appearance. The properly groomed fool has the hair trimmed short. This can be done with scissors or a fine stripping knife and is pretty easy to do. The hair on the bottom of the foot that grows between the pads should be clipped with fine scissors. This is one area that has an impact upon the dog's comfort if your Cairn likes to play in the snow. Unless the snow is very dry it will tend to stick to the hair between the pads, forming ice balls that make walking painful. If you see your Cairn stopping frequently in the snow to chew its feet suspect that long hair between the pads is the cause of the problem.


Grooming, then, is much more than just enhancing your Cairn's good looks. It is part of a comprehensive program to maintain its health, hygiene, and distinct breed appearance. A moderate amount of effort on a regular basis can provide large benefits.

Make sure to read this information also.

This page has been visited times since October 26, 1998

This page was last March 30, 2002

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